July 26, 2010

How Do You Say "Reason" in Chinese?

For not having any sort of answer, I’ve thought an embarrassingly long time about the question, What’s the difference between and excuse and a reason? 

My best guess is that it comes down to the recipient of the excuse/reason. What smacks of excuse to one person may well strike the next person as a bona fide reason. Take, for instance, the lengthy treatise that kicked off this blog – the April 10 posts detailing my post-graduate tour of underemployment and my subsequent move to China.

Some people may read those posts and think…

Wow, this guy had some really tough luck. He graduated in the spring of 2008, about six months after the start of the recession. He had that internship right after he graduated, which seemed a good idea at the time, and then he hit the ground running in September ’08 looking for a job. Alas, September ’08 is when the stock market plummeted, and when things started looking bleak in every single sector of the economy, particularly in the journalism industry, which is where this guy – who was just a kid back then – wanted to work. On the heels of his past internships and his trio of journalistic awards, he damn near got a few jobs, but juuuust missed out. After more than a year of hitting his head against the job market wall, he decided that his best play was to move to China for a while, ride out the recession, and then hit the hump again in a year or two.

Some other people, though, might read those April 10 posts and think...

What’s this guy bitching about? First off, he majored in philosophy, which is notorious for funneling people into the unemployment line. What’s more, he never diversified his journalistic expertise. He was too gung-ho about sports journalism, which is oversaturated as it is, and didn’t have the portfolio of clips to bust into the news or education or entertainment arenas of journalism, which don’t have quite as many wannabes and bloggers cluttering the market. And not only did he not diversify himself as a journalist, but he didn’t diversify himself as a job candidate. Not everyone gets to be a journalist. It’s a select crew, and anyone can tell you that it’s not a meritocracy: you have to have both skill and luck. And even if this guy has some skill – which is debatable – he was still pinning his employment hopes on an industry that required more than a little serendipity. If he was smart, he would have been putting out feelers in a million different fields and would have come to the conclusion that in the post-Great Recession job market, you can’t let your ideals run roughshod over your brains. Bottom line, he dug his own grave. 

The thing is, both responses are totally justifiable; neither can be proven right or wrong. While I would certainly tend to agree with the former of these two analyses, my dad might side with No. 2, and he would have any number of reasons to do so. That’s the bitch of this reason/excuse dichotomy: it’s all about perspective, and one’s perspective depends on a million different things, things which the person delivering said reason/excuse can’t control. 

Because of this, I don’t know how these ensuing words will be treated – that is, if they will smack of excuse, or if, on the other hand, people will look at them and see logic. Either way, here goes:
The reason (or excuse) for the recent dearth of activity at Cultural Crossover is language, and the fact that I don’t speak a lick of Chinese. Because I don’t speak Chinese, and because the original bent of this blog was to analyze basketball in China – and the people who play basketball in China – I don’t have much to write about. 

I don’t know how that will resonate. To those who think that’s an excuse, it probably sounds like am any other blogger, not someone who really deserves to put the word “writer” in his bio.
This steady plunge in blog activity happens all the time. Someone starts a blog and tells all their friends and posts like a madman for a few weeks and is absolutely confident that they can build up a good following. Then, at about the two-month mark, as the good people at Google Analytics detail the ongoing lack of readership, the blogger gets discouraged and starts posting less…and less. Less posting, of course, isn’t good for readership, which sinks ever more, further dampening that once zealous zest that the blogger had about his or her cool new blog. (In the place of low readership, feel free to substitute old-fashioned laziness as the culprit for a cessation of posts.) 

This is the excuse perspective. 

To those reason people out there, let me explain a little further. When I started this, I didn’t want it to be another China blog. There are a million blogs out there – many of which are damn good – that wax poetic about Chinese culture and Chinese news. A lot of these blogs are written by people who have lived in China for years, and who know a great deal more about this country’s history, politics, economy and culture. I don’t know all that much (or care all that much) about these things, and as such, I have no interest in trying to write about them. 

What I do know and care about, and what I wanted to write about, is basketball. And a stroll around any Chinese city will reveal beyond doubt that basketball is important to innumerable Chinese people. And you can’t have a basketball-loving country of 1.3 billion without there being a bottomless well of good stories about basketball.

But while basketball’s importance in China is indisputable, I’ve still had a world of trouble writing about it. At the outset of the blog, I was writing a lot about the quirks I noticed in Chinese basketball – the score keeping, the clothes, the lingo, etc. These things were interesting to me, and they fueled some good posts. 

After a while, I felt like I had exhausted these different topics, and was forced to make an increasing number of forays into Chinese culture: I was mining basketball not to write about basketball, but instead using it as a springboard to write about other things. This method yielded what I felt to be a few solid posts as well, like this one about Yao Ming and adidas, this one about Los Suns and Chinese censorship, and this one about the CBA and the American burnouts who end up playing pro ball in China. 

Eventually, though, the blog devolved into an ongoing dialogue about Chinese culture. I started writing about smoking in China, the lack of left-handed people people in China, how people drink hot water in China, and so on. 

These topics were vaguely interesting to me, but after a little while I realized that I wasn’t writing a basketball blog anymore. And that’s what I wanted to do here. This blog, after all, was inspired by the book Heaven Is a Playground, a Rick Telander classic in which he spends a summer playing ball in the inner city and, in the process, unearths all these cool stories about the cultural significance of basketball and the people who play it. 

That is what I wanted to do, but for some reason I didn’t foresee language being as big of a problem as it has turned out to be. In hindsight, this seems extremely naïve of me: Of course not speaking the native language is going to be an issue. Maybe I thought that there would be more English speakers out there, or that my bilingual coworkers would be more willing to help me. I don’t know. But I know that I have never been able to have any sort of substantial interaction with the people I play basketball with, and as such, I’ve had very few substantial blog posts about my time on the courts of China.
I came over here holding out little hope of learning the language, and even less of a desire to pore over flashcards and recite tones into a dictaphone to gauge my progress. I’m not defending this philosophy; it’s just the mindset I had when I arrived and the mindset that, for better or worse – mostly worse – I have stuck with all the while. 

Still, it’s an easy stance to justify; Chinese is utterly inaccessible to Westerners. Unlike good old Spanish, which I studied a bit in high school and college, there is nothing akin to a cognate. Oh, how I miss words like enciclopedia. You can’t really mess up words like that. Here, though, nothing is so clear. In Spanish, for instance, the word for chimpanzee is chimpancé. In Chinese, the word for chimpanzee is 黑猩猩. Fat chance.

So that’s what happened to this blog. I know that I never had great readership, save on days when bigger and better China bloggers graciously shared some of their traffic with me and linked to posts that I had written. But this blog was never really about readership. It was about my quest too learn about basketball in China, even if I couldn’t speak the language. I fear now, though, that all I’ve learned is that you can’t learn much of anything if you can’t talk with the people you want to learn about. 

That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.


  1. If your goal is to get a sports writing job state-side, I think this blog could really help you as a marketing tool. Have you sent this blog or any of your favorite blog posts to hiring editors or sports-writers so they could see how talented your prose is? If so, keep it up. If not, its not too late to market this nice piece of journalism to guys and gals that make the hiring decisions state-wide. In the words of Jimmy V, "Don't give up...Don't ever give up."

  2. Man, take what Amy says to heart. Love that finishing touch from a great Jimmy V quote.

  3. Oh but I love your blog! There are thousands of blogs about China, yes. However, there are less about Shandong, few about Jinan, and yours is the only public blog about SDNU. I don't care about basketball, but I do care about belonging and representing the .00000000001% of minorities on campus. Your posts remind me that I'm not alone :)